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A New Beginning (a short story)

A New Beginning

(c) 2008 Levi Montgomery

     Miranda sorts through her closet with her face squeezed hard, somewhere between a pout and a frown. Mostly, she’s upset with herself. She really wants to be either really, really cool and aloof and big-deal-who-cares, or else totally angry about the uproar, but all she can manage is to be ticked off. Ticked off about having to dress up, ticked off about not being able to be cool and aloof, ticked off about caring.

     Dress! Who wears dresses anymore? If he thinks sixteen-year-old girls wear dresses, he’s been a lot farther away than anybody ever told her. That might explain why he never wrote. No, it can’t. Nothing can. The blue one. She’ll wear the blue one, and she strips off the pale red one, drops it in the pile. Not pink. Pale red. Not pink. No way she’d even think about wearing pink, not for him. Not for anybody, but totally not for him.

     She drops the blue dress down over her head, but it barely even pauses before she steps out of it. The blue dress joins the pale red one in the rapidly growing pile on the floor, and she stands staring into the closet, her whole face clenched so hard it hurts.

     Maybe he’d like pink. She holds the pink dress up again, looking in the mirror.

     Looking in the mirror, Peter turns sideways. There’s a bit too much Peter hanging over the waistband of the slacks, and he shakes his head in disgust. This is why he wears the jeans he does, big baggy things that’d count as sagging on anybody else, lots of pockets to disguise his shape. This pair’s almost as bad as the first pair, and he sits down, pulls them off carefully, one leg at a time. Carefully, with swift and practiced moves, he fidgets the cuffs together perfectly, slides the hanger down them, drapes them neatly. When they’re perfect, they rejoin their brothers on the closet rod. The third pair, the third pair out of the three pairs he owns that aren’t the big baggy jeans, are the best fit, the least constricting, the least ridiculous. Well, he’ll have to wear something, it’s too late to commit suicide, and he turns to his shirts. A little easier going here; he always wears big baggy tee shirts, but he at least has a white dress shirt that fits him ok. He has to wear it for orchestra, for things that Dr Emerson says aren’t formal enough to merit the tux. He thinks, for a moment, about trying to hang it down over the waistband of the chinos, but discards the thought before his hands can even pause in the tucking.

     He could’ve worn the jeans, actually. Mom told Miranda to wear a dress, and no one thought she was kidding, but then, Mom’s opinions on proper dress are nothing new. Girls wears dresses, in the absence of a “compelling reason” not to. Not that Miranda pays much attention. Telling her to wear a dress didn’t mean he had to dress up, but somehow, he feels the need.

     Carrying his horn and stand, he goes downstairs.

     Katie dresses slowly. When he called yesterday, after the shock, after the long silent sitting in her room, the first thing she did was go to the mall. She didn’t even tell Peter and Miranda, not until today. Her first stop was Victoria’s Secret, and now, stepping from the shower, slowly slowly drying and powdering and oiling, everything she puts on is brand-new. Brand-new for him, from the skin out. Each line of elastic snugged carefully perfect, each fold tucked down just right, every smoothness spread slowly flat, each patch of lace fingered smooth. She stopped at the salon on the way home, for her first-ever bikini wax, and she let them talk her into doing her legs, too.

     She remembers her wedding night. Their wedding night. She’d made him wait, and he’d seemed willing. She hadn’t let him touch her until that night, and she’d spent almost two hours just like this, stroking and tucking and smoothing till everything was perfect for him. That night was a beginning, and tonight will be another. A new beginning, only now she knows how to be what he needs.

     In the living room, Peter spends a few minutes getting the French horn and music stand to look like he practices in here all the time, like he just got up; like he heard a car outside, set down the horn, and stood up to see what was up. Miranda watches, pacing, wearing the pink dress she calls pale red and never wears. He doesn’t like that dress, doesn’t like the way it makes him want to watch her knees. He turns away, leafing through the music on the stand, wondering what piece he should have just gotten up from to go check the street. Seven years ago, her knees were always skinned and scratched. Skinned and scratched like his were, the last time he remembers seeing his father.

     Even then, he was chubby. Even at eleven, maybe especially at eleven. He’d a whole lot rather be in his room with the recorder he’d gotten in third grade, or the old metal clarinet his uncle’d given him a year or so later, pretending he took music lessons like the boy next door, but he’d had to go out in the back yard and “throw a few” with his father.

     Even now, he’s not sure why. They’d done it in the past, but he thought he’d been given up on. He knew he was a disappointment, but he really wasn’t sure what he could have done differently. He just wasn’t that boy, wasn’t that son you could take out in the back yard and “throw a few” with. His father’d left him alone for months, and then suddenly, there he was again, juggling the big stiff mitt, trying to fend off the ball his father threw. The third or fourth time he fell down and cried, his father’d gone inside. He didn’t come home from work the next day, and some deeply hidden, sneaking part of himself still won’t believe that he wasn’t directly responsible.

     Horn and stand as good as they’re going to get, he begins to pace, working opposite to Miranda. She goes north, he goes south. She goes south, he goes north.

     “Seven years,” he says. She just nods, distracted. He wonders how well she remembers. She’d have been what? Nine?

     Mom comes in, looking soft and dreamy and ten years younger. Last week, there was a tea-and-cookie thing after the last concert of the year, and there was this new kid, a trombonist. He’s standing there by Peter and Jackson and some other guys, and he looks up and goes “Wow!” and everybody looks around. “Is that someone’s sister? Man, I’d like to–” and Jackson’s smothering the new kid. “Dude, that’s my mom,” Peter says, calmly. “She’s like, thirty-five,” putting another cookie in his mouth. She’s always looked younger than she is, but right now she looks like she’s not even twenty yet. And happy, she looks happier than he can remember seeing her for a long time.

     “Where’s your school picture, Peter? Why is that there?” pointing at the chess club plaque he hung up an hour ago, where his stupid-looking senior picture was. “He’s not going to care about that, Peter. Put the picture back. Miranda, are you wearing nylons? You’re not wearing nylons. I told you to wear nylons. Get yourself up there and put some on. Peter, hang the picture back up.” Well, happy but anxious.

     “Mom, it’s a picture of me. Just the way I look, right now. He doesn’t need to see a picture of me, when he can see me. Remember how he used to say I spent too much time inside? I needed to go and play with the other boys? I’m proud of that plaque, Mom. I want him to see it,” and something in the way he says that, something firm and tall, makes her relent. She turns to Miranda, ready to stand her ground on nylons, at least, but Miranda’s already headed upstairs.

     She can’t find any nylons, and she calls down to her mother, offering to make the sacrifice and wear jeans after all, but Mom says look in the linen closet, so she does, and there’s half a dozen new pairs in there. Drat. There’s a mirror in the closet door, and she pivots a bit in front of it. Pink. Definitely pink, and she goes into her room. Sliding the the nylons on, hating the icky way they cockle-burr onto her fingers, she studies the ribbons and medals on the wall. Not a bad idea, Peter. Make a stand. This is me. Like it or lump it. Ribbons and medals from cross-country, a couple of trophies from fast-pitch. The cross-country things would have to be hung up, but the trophies are actually a little cheap looking. There’s so much pulse and heartbeat tied up in every one, so many tears, so much of her life, that she’s never noticed that, and doesn’t much care now, but there’s a school picture of her that she can take down, on the wall in the living room. Why take a chance on having him think the trophies are cheesy? Her best medal in hand, she opens the door. Third in the state, last fall.

     Heading for the stairs, she feels a draft in an awkward place, and she has to stop to pull her skirt out of the back of her nylons. This is why I wear jeans, Mom.

     Mom’s gone somewhere by the time Miranda comes back. He watches her come down the stairs, wearing a green dress, longer and fuller than the pink one. This one makes her look like a little girl, all puffy sleeves and a big bow in the back. “You going to a tea party?” and that came out a lot meaner-sounding than he meant it to, but she just grunts at him. All he really meant was the pink one made her look like the girls at school, but he doesn’t think he can tell her that. He turns to the window, watches the stop sign for a while. It’s just standing there, being a stop sign, waving a little in the breeze.

     Tea party. Her father’s knees were up by his ears, sitting in her tiny wooden chair in the back yard. The cup looked like the toy it was, plucked between his thumb and finger like that. When she holds it, it looks real. When she holds it, it is real. The cup, the tea, the cakes, the other guests, all are real, but she doesn’t think he gets it. She thinks he sees a plastic toy, and Kool-Aid, and lemon sandwich cookies, and a bunch of dolls and stuffies. He’d never come to one of her tea parties, back when she still did all this, and then today, he came and asked her if she wanted to. Even for her, the magic’s almost gone now, and she’s sure he isn’t getting it. When he goes inside, she puts the tea cup down and hugs her knees, skirt flapping.

     He didn’t come home from work the next day. She still wonders if it was her tea party that was the last thing he couldn’t stand.

     She takes the picture down and puts it on the piano. It has one of those things that fold out, and it stands there looking like it’s supposed to be there, like maybe there’s some connection between her and the piano. Ha! Fat chance! That shiny black demon hates her with a passion matched only by her hatred for it. She’s hanging the medal up where the picture was when Peter gently rolls a few chords from the old piano. All he has to do is look at it, and it starts to sing for him. Yeah, but he can’t run. Or play first base.

     “Oh, Miranda! Not you, too!” Mom’s back. “You know how he feels, honey. He’s going to see that medal and he’ll think. . . oh, who cares? That is you, isn’t it?” and she sighs a deep sigh. That is Miranda, and the chess club thing is Peter, and if he’s coming back, he’ll just have to get used to it. She can be what he needs, she can be all he needs, and the need he felt for his kids to be some old standard will just have to die. They are what they are, and he’ll love them just as much as he did before. He did, he did love them. He just didn’t know how to show it. Now he will, with her being what he needs.

     She checks her watch, checks the clock on the living room wall, goes into the kitchen and checks the microwave clock. They’re all traitors. They all say he’s twenty minutes late, and there’s no way he’d be late to this. She’d check the clock on the DVD, but they never did get it reset after the last big winter storm. The book was gone, and who can figure out a DVD player with no book? She straightens Peter’s plaque a little, slides her finger down behind the medal’s ribbon for no reason at all, hitches the sheet music on the piano a sixteenth of an inch left, turns the page on Peter’s stand. She doesn’t even notice when he comes along behind her and turns it back.

     Check the clock again. All right, check them all again. They’re still all wrong.

     They all three drift in and out of the living room, never leaving it completely empty, like they’re taking turns on sentry duty. If it’s your turn on sentry duty, you can pace, you can fidget, you can put your fingers on the edge of the window frame and do calf lifts, but you have to check on the stop sign out front every few seconds, just to be sure it’s still there, still being a stop sign, still alone out there.

     Four hours late, a pickup pulls up outside, and they all troop out the door, all thinking they look over-eager, none of them wanting to be last one out.

     For just a second, Peter thinks they were wrong, this isn’t the right truck at all, because a total stranger emerges. But then he recognizes the sweat-stained John Deere hat, and then the bony hands, and then the stranger isn’t a stranger at all, it’s his father.

     “Hey, Sport!” his father says too loudly, “Good to see you! Know you anywhere, Tiger! Chip off the old block!” and he laughs a forced-sounding guffaw. Yep, definitely the right man. He squats back a little, tries to shadow-box with Peter, but Peter still doesn’t know how to respond to that, and he stops. He raps his knuckles a little on Peter’s pudgy belly, saying “Oughta lose a few pounds, there, though, Sport! Lookin’ a little pudgy!”

     “Princess!” holding his arms out to Miranda to be rushed into, but she just looks down at her feet. “It’s good to see you, too, Baby! Still cute as bug, after all these years!” but the moment’s too awkward, too stiff, and he moves on, to the woman he was married to for twelve years.

     “Di– Katie! Long, long time!” he says in lieu of a greeting, watching her eyes. What is that he’s seeing there, in her eyes?

     “Hey! Presents! I have presents!” and he’s turning back to the truck, digging in a big bag, turning back. “Didn’t bother with gift-wrapping!” he says, like they couldn’t see that.

     “Hey, hey, Sport! Hunh?” holding out a football like it means something else, his head on one side, that huge grin glowing. “How ’bout that, hunh?” and every syllable says “Be excited! This is cool!” but it really isn’t. Peter takes the football awkwardly in both hands, and he’d tuck it under his arm like they do on TV, drop down into that stance, put his knuckles on the ground, call out some numbers and dodge slickly past his father, dance that jiggy toe-dance in the end zone, if only he could. He holds the ball awkwardly in both hands, smiling and nodding, the old helpless tears sliding down his mind, way in the back. Come inside, Dad, he says, way in the back. Come inside and hear me play.

     “Princess! I saw this, and it made me think of Daddy’s little girl, right away. I saw it, and it just called out your name, right there in the store!” his hands making a megaphone, being a toy calling out. It’s a soft plastic pony a foot high, glittery pink with a rainbow mane so long it would sweep the ground, if it was real. She thinks it’s really stupid, and she wants to drop down on her knees and play on the gravelly front walk, so he’ll know how much she loves it. She wants to show him her medal in the living room. She wants to show him the cheesy trophies and all the medals she ran so hard to get, so hard she threw up. She wants to throw her arms around him and cry, and tell him she’s sorry, she’ll never do it again, please please please come back, but she doesn’t know what she did.

     “D– Katie, this is for you. I still remember,” he says, like he’s holding back some deep emotion. He hands her a gift-pack of the perfume she wore in high school, the perfume she quit wearing in the first year they were married. He never did remember that, and she takes it from him now with the same old frustration she used to take it from him with every birthday, every anniversary, every Christmas. She hasn’t worn this stuff for years, but she’d wear it now, she’d slosh it all over if it meant he’d follow her up to her room and unwrap the gift she wrapped for him so slowly, so perfectly. She’s opening her mouth to say something about going inside, when he speaks again.

     “Well. . .” he says slowly, like this is something he’d rather not say, “Well. . .” shuffling his toe a little, looking down. “I, uh, yeah. I really don’t have any time, right now. There’s, uh, someone waiting, actually. Met her last night. She’s at the motel now, so, uh. . . Hey, though! Good to see you all! Real good! We gotta do this again, ok?” and then he’s gone.

     “Seven years,” Peter says, when the sound of his truck is gone completely, watching his mother watch the stop sign at the end of the street. “Seven years,” he says, shrugging one shoulder at Miranda as he starts up the stairs. “I hereby declare him dead,” and he’d throw the football clear over the house if he thought he could, but he drops it in the porch swing on the way by, whistling a few bars of Beethoven, his fingers already working the keys of the French horn that waits for him in the living room.


Remembering (a short story)

(c) 2008 Levi Montgomery


Blue. He remembers blue. A blue so deep, so dark, so blue, you can smell it in the back of your throat like swallowing a crayon, like the crayon shavings under your nails from peeling the paper back.

Strawberry. That clean cool first-lover smell of strawberries. The scrape of her nails, the swift kitten of her hair on his arm, the slick pearl taste of her teeth.

He remembers the taste of the palm of her hand, the warm drift of her hair in his face, the gentle tug of her teeth on his lip, both hands greedy on the back of his neck, combed into his hair.

The silken swell of her rising breasts, the taper of her back in the palms of his hands, the untracked dunes of her hipbones, the flat uncharted sea of her stomach.

Amber. He remembers Amber as he wakes. He’s dreamed of Amber again, dreamed of her still, dreamed of her forever. He sits on the muddled bed, sits in the darkened room, shuffles into his slippers, into his past, into that timeless dream he knew her in so long ago. He peels back the layers of paper, baring the raw blue core of the old dreams.

She was everything he’d ever wanted from a girl, everything he’d ever even dreamed they could be, from his earliest preteen dreams. She thought her name silly; he thought it mysterious, steeped in time, holding all the frozen relics of the unknown. She thought her dark eyebrows ugly; he thought them perfect counterpoint for her icy hair. She thought her hands too big and ugly; he thought them perfect embodiments of grace.

In the stark bichromatic perfection of hindsight, she is plainer than in the Kodachrome of dream, but he loved her then and he loves her now, standing in his slippers at the window, his fingertips pressed to the slick cool glass. The moon blurs across the sky, a time machine dragging him forward into that black and silver past.

Black and silver. Black and white. Right and wrong. Amber and Dana. Dana was everything he’d ever thought wrong about girls. Tall and lean and alive, her perfect eyes, her perfect breasts, watching him, luring him. Everything he’d ever thought wrong.

He met Amber in the first week at the new school, perhaps the first day. He ran into her, actually, rounding a corner in the musty booming echoes of the old building, head down in the schedule in his hand, puzzling the details from it, prizing out the clues. He rounds the corner and bumps into a girl, the girl, the one in his dreams for so long. Her long hair an icy blond, her eyes the blue of dreams, the blue of life, her eyebrows darker, beetled down in frustration perhaps, but her mouth is grinning, the wide mouth of his dreams, the lips he’s kissed so many times. He’s never seen her. He’s new here.

He watches her lips quirk as he says “Oh! Sorry! Wasn’t watching where I was going,” and she points him on, on to the room he’s seeking and on through his life, moving away down the hall. At the corner, she looks back, looks a deep electric shock into his still-hooked eyes. He’s never seen her. He’s known her forever.

Not there, she haunts his morning classes, watching him from the corners of his eyes. He can’t see her straight on. He smells her scent in the breeze of his mind, feels the flow of her hair on his face. He can taste her perfect lips, the salt of her straining neck, as he writes out answers to useless chalky questions.

He sees her in the lunchroom, goes to her half-filled table.

“May I sit here?” he asks them, asks her, asks only her. She nods, and though the others may have answered also, he can’t hear them in his memory. He can’t remember the words of that first time, can’t remember any of the questions or answers, the dreams stated, the revelations made and discovered. He remembers laughter. He remembers her eyes flashing and flicking in the cold white light, the gleam on her icy blond hair, the long slipping slope of his helpless plunge.

He remembers watching her breasts move, watching her shoulders move, her hips scoot her forward as she makes some deep-held point, her hands flying like moths. The others may not have been there at all. The memories may be tangled, now, may be braided together with other times. There were so many other times.

She’s in all his afternoon classes, and by the time they get to the first, they’re together. They walk together, sit together, move to the buses together. He touches her hands the very first time there at the buses, taking her fingers in his for one eternal instant, taking her eyes in his, breathing her warm scent and telling her he’ll see her tomorrow.

Touching her the first time. So many first times. The first time he kissed her, the first time he touched her breast, the first time he moved his hand to her buttons, his eyes on hers, his thoughts on hers. So many first times. So many more times.

The weeks rolled by in a long perfection of time, just time together, simple time passing as they lived their perfect moments. He’d start thoughts and she’d finish them. She’d move her hand a certain way, and he’d be the rest of the movement. They’re one voice in two minds, one curve drawn with two pens. They are perfection itself, the perfection of timing, the perfection of movement, the perfection of being.

Chestnuts, fallen. Park benches where they cuddled in the fall cold. The laughter and snowballs of winter. The green of crocuses, the pulsing rebirth of spring, he remembers all these things as blue, the deep blue of belief, the blue of her eyes. The blue of love.

Dana. Amber’s best friend Dana. Dana watched him from the first, the flickers of her ember eyes telling him things he didn’t get. When Amber missed three days to a bad cold in late spring, Dana talked to him, comforted him, kept him company in the interminable lunch times. She flashed those eyes at him, heaved her breasts, finally made one certain move one time too many. She tapped the spin of some ancient flywheel deep inside herself, threw him on that potter’s wheel, worked the clay of his mind into a flat and shallow vessel, a vessel incapable of thought, incapable of logic.

When Amber came back to school, he was gone. He was there, but he was gone, melted into the puddle of Dana. Dana was everything he’d ever thought wrong about girls. Mean and shallow-minded, vindictive. She’d hated Amber for years. When she laughed that last time and walked away from him, two days later, Amber was gone, melted into a puddle of hatred she never came back from.

His hands to the window of his lonely bedroom, his fingers wrinkled, his eyes faded, his thin body shivering in flannel pajamas, he remembers blue and strawberries and icy blond hair.

He remembers Amber as he drifts toward that welcome sleep.


The drawer won’t actually slam, of course, it’s far too discreet for that, but she bets that’s harder than it’s been banged shut in all its hundred-plus years, and the carpet’s too soft to let her heels sound their anvil chorus as she marches to the table, but two glass paperweights and a fifth of single-malt fire a nice angry salvo when she dumps this last armload down by the box. They’ll hear her, all right, all those sniggering losers out there with their keyboards up their butts! She’ll see to it they at least hear her! She’s spent the best years of her life trying to control the emotions of others, and look where it got her! Fifty-nine! Fifty-nine and the snow globe from Paris sails nicely through the frosted glass and into a sudden shivering silence. Oh, they’ll hear her! They’ll yammer about this day for years. They’ll probably get a body-guard to escort the next one out, after today. The crystal whale almost goes through the big window over the street, but the lawyer in her screams something about liability, and then it almost follows the Eiffel Tower into the outer office, but she hears his voice in her mind’s ear, and then she’ll smash it down on the table, but a smaller, softer voice somewhere whispers something, and she sets it gently into the box, instead.

Fifty-nine. Not even sixty, not even the sixty-five they’d all expected of her, much less the seventy-five or eighty she’d planned on. Fifty-nine! Fifty-nine years old, twenty-seven years at Lehman, Lehman, Hammarskold, and this is how they repay her! Damage control, they called it. Fair enough, that lawyer part murmurs, fair enough. She’d said the same thing when they’d dumped Albertson last year, even though she’d known it was all so her boss could move up. Best way up the ladder, she’s found. Help your boss move up. And drop your panties for him, go to your knees for him. Whatever.

But now she’s not even moving, not slamming things any more, not stomping, and her fingers soothe the crystal whale like she’d make it sing, a wine glass whispering in a quiet room, a sad wind sighing in a stony desert somewhere.

A deep breath like she’ll sigh herself, and catch it hard at the last moment, force it out like anger from her core, and she and her boxful of years stomp one last time out through the silence.

She saw him, actually, just a couple months ago. Crossing a street toward his car, and the shaking in his hand was probably just the struggle to sort keys one-handed. The look of age was probably just the affectation of the hat and the old-fashioned haircut. He wore a brown over-coat against the fall chill, and she was so stricken by his age that she’d done the math. Sixty, he’d be. That’s not old. Why’s he look so old?

Driving one-handed, she cuddles the whale in her lap, like it matters to her. When he gave it to her, she’d known his time was up. Never take a gift from a boy, she’d decided. Well, not really. Take the gift, take the next half-dozen, but begin to plan his downfall as your hand reaches out toward that first one. The whale means nothing to her, and she’ll put it back in the box so she can drive, but she tucks it safely back into her lap, fitting her hand along the curve of its breaching back.

That first time, the time at the swimming hole by the river. You swing out on this big rope swing, dropping from the top of the arc, and if you tie your swimsuit top just that perfect bit too loose, it slides off as you go under, and floats away toward where he stands on the bank. “Don’t worry!” he calls to her, wading out. “I’ll bring it out to you!” embarrassed and blushing, but nowhere near as flustered as he is when he gets there, and she hands him her cut-offs, grinning with a practiced coyness.

Then, on the riverbank, in the tall sweet grass, that sweet release again, like nothing she can ever do for herself. She tries, and it’s okay, but this… this is what it’s all about, right here. This is why she’s sought out all those boys, ever since she was thirteen. “This is my first time, so go slow, ok?” she whispers to them in a little shivery silver voice. “No, no, it doesn’t hurt!” she tells them, squinching the skin by the corners of her eyes, baring her teeth a tiny bit, biting the edge of her lip, blinking hard. “It’s fine, it’s just that it’s so– big!” Works every time.

That’s the trick that got her all her jewelry and a good part of her clothing, all through school. It got her that summer clerk spot under old Judge Robard, and the internship with Evans and Evans the following summer. It got her this job, for that matter. And it got her fired.

It probably wouldn’t have shattered if she had slammed it down on the table. It would have been best to chuck it through that big plate-glass window after all, and somewhere in her mind, she storms back into the office, just so she can, just so she can see the looks on all their faces. Somewhere in her mind, she circles the blocks back around to the building and slams it through from the outside, but all she does is drive one-handed, her hand snugged down along the whale’s back, tears on her face and clouds in her mind.

When he gave it to her, it was clear he’d saved for months. It was clear there’d be no more for quite a while, too, so she started planning. Dana. Sweet, naïve, subservient Dana. She’d give him to Dana, and kill that old bird with the same stone.

In first grade, they’d walked to school together, she and Dana. If she got mad at someone at school, she’d slap Dana’s back just barely too hard to be play, over and over and over all the way home. She’d make Dana walk three steps behind her, telling her it was to give her a chance to think about her tone of voice. In the giggling, running girl games at recess, she’d volunteer Dana for all the bad parts in the playing. If they played school, Dana was the dunce. If they played house, Dana got stood in the corner.

But by their junior year, Dana’s dog-like patience was getting annoying, and she wound her up with hints about how Tyson was getting restless, she was getting worried, he was looking at Dana like he maybe saw greener grass on the other side of that fence. You’re my best friend, Dana! I’ve known you forever! What can I do, how can I keep him? Then she skipped school for three days, and when she came back, neither of them was ever going to bug her again.

The fifth of single-malt from her desk helps her through a long slow evening, sudden fits of anger threaded on a string of melancholy, and when it’s gone, she snatches it up to smash it through the window, but she stops, her fingertips pressed to the cold cold glass, to watch the moon slide down between the city towers.


All six kids together in the house again, and every time she thinks that, it makes her cry again. No sound, just two big tears that come and quiver on her eyelids like they’ll fall, but then they subside again. All six kids in the house together, the living ends of six long strands through time and space, leading away to those distant points where they each began. Those strands lead through Iraq, through Afghanistan, through car wrecks and tornados and one smoky, spark-riddled, sliding emergency landing in a 747, but they all come together here, and she’ll cry this time, she’ll drop those two tears this time, but they subside again.

It always happens this way. Every time she can get them all together again, every time she can gather up those strands and knit them together one more time, she ends up on the couch in the living room surrounded by her photo albums. The kids are all off in the yard, or in the TV room, or playing the Xbox. Well, kids. Evelyn, the youngest of the bunch, is twenty-one already, treated by her brothers as just one more boy. She was the one in the 747.

They’ll come and look at the albums with her, at first, paging backward through time, but then the time gets too far back, the pictures too old, and one by one, they’re gone. She keeps turning pages, keeps slipping further and further back as the evening wears on, fighting down her two old friends every time she hears a blur of laughter from another room.

Here’s the wreckage of their last tornado, the one that decided them. The house looks like so much splintered wood, and the old Chevy’s parked in the elm like it belongs there. Look how young Dan looks, his arm around her waist, his hair wind-blown. “We’ll rebuild!” he’d laughed the first time. “It’s not too bad,” he said the second time. The third time in nine years, he’d said, was too much.

Here’s that big picnic, the last time they got all their friends together. Two years out of school, and everybody’s already moving on. Jobs, and college, and careers. Her barely-started family was her career, the only career she’d ever wanted, and the two tears appear again, but they’re gone before she can threaten them with her clutched kleenex. Look how young she looks there. She sits up a little straighter, lifts her breasts a little higher. Dan still says she’s sexy, but she’s begun to doubt his sanity.

Look, here’s a clipping from the small-town paper, vicariously celebrating, local-girl-makes-it-big. Summer clerk’s position for Judge Robard, all the way in New York City, two hours drive. Amber smiles grimly from a blurry head-shot, gilded letters unreadable on frosted glass behind her. They hadn’t talked at all since their junior year, but when her mother sent this to her, she couldn’t bring herself to throw it away. They hadn’t talked since…

And look, here he is. Her one picture of him, cut from the yearbook. She’d had others, she’d taken dozens, but they all had Amber in them, and they didn’t survive the upheaval of her late teens. The doubts, the darkness and depression, the long grim evenings with the razor blade from Dad’s garage held ready, but never used. And then she’d used it finally, used it to slice up all the pictures she’d ever taken of Amber, all the pictures she’d ever taken of Tyson, the one long letter she’d written him and never sent. Used it to slice herself away from all that past. From that small pile of shredded regrets, she finally could go on, and the blade had never called her name again.

Here’s Amber again, though. Her mother sent her this, too. Two little girls, dressed up for their first day of second grade. What’s that look in little Amber’s eyes? What’s in Dana’s? She thought for years that Amber was her best friend, and then Tyson shook that all up. Three days. Three days she’ll never forget, although she never thinks of them. She thought he was the one. That last night, before Amber came back to school and he disappeared into that eddy of bewildered longing, she remembers that night even now. She wouldn’t let him do it right, she made him use his hand, but in her view, that shuddering gasping violet haze is when she lost her virginity. She has no doubt now, he was wrong for her, but only because Dan was better.

The evening’s gone dark and cool now, and she stands with her hands against the glass of the window, watching the moon. Remembering.


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Snake Oil – a short story

Snake Oil

The Story Of Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster And How The History Books Went Missing

(c) 2008 Levi Montgomery

     I’ve been asked to tell you the story of Sammy. Well, I say Sammy, I mean to say all his friends called him Sammy. Well, that is, I’m sure his friends would have called him Sammy if he’d had any friends, because everybody in town called him Sammy but his parents, but he didn’t have any friends. Like I say, I’m sure if he’d had any friends, they would’ve called him Sammy. Only his parents, his egotistical stuck-up parents, didn’t call him that. Well, I mean to say I assume his parents were egotistical and stuck up, I don’t rightly know ’cause I never did meet ’em, see, they never came into the store or anything, they just seemed to me to be egotistical and stuck up, ’swhat I mean to say. Can’t think of any other reason why a set of parents’d saddle a defenseless infant with a name of Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, which is what this couple did, so like I say, stands to reason they’re pretty stuck up. Well, I say “are,” I don’t know as that’s actually right, ’cause this’s been a lot of years, and they may be dead by now, I don’t rightly know. I mean to say they could be dead, they could be live for all I know. Anyway they named their kid Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, and everybody called him Sammy, and I’m supposed to tell you his story, so here goes.
     Well, I mean to say, everybody knew his name, it’s just that no one used it, no one went around saying “Hey, Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, you wouldn’t happen to know the time right now, would you?” or “Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, that surely is one mighty fine shirt you got on right there, yessir!” Stands to reason, doesn’t it? Long-winded name like that, you’re gonna want to find some kind of shortcut, or you’re still gonna be looking for the end of it come sundown and you’re liable to miss dinner, ’swhat I mean to say. So anyway, with no more ifs, ands, or preamble, let me tell you the story of Sammy and the missing history books.
     Oh – well, I guess I never mentioned the missing history books, did I? They were just some books, see, some books the school here in Greasepit, Nevada got sent out from some big place in New York City, some big place back there in New York City that makes history books. Well, I mean to say, they make books. I guess they could make some kind of books besides history books, they could make algebra books, or geometry books, or kid’s picture books, or I guess they could make just about any kind of books you can think of. I don’t rightly know, I just know they made these history books this story is about. Well, the story isn’t about the history books, per se and as such, so to speak, it’s the story about Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, or Sammy as everybody but his parents called him.
     Well, like I said, I never met his parents, and I don’t rightly know what they called him, but I assume they didn’t call him Sammy, or they would have named him Sammy, see? Stands to reason that if you name your kid something awful like Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, you aim to use it, you know what I mean? I imagine Sammy was late to dinner most nights, ’cause if they didn’t get a good head start calling his name out the back door, dinner’d be cold by the time he got there, ’swhat I mean to say. Anyway the story of the books that went missing from the school library in Greasepit, Nevada is as follows, herewith and to wit:
     Well, I guess I should say something about how the town got called Greasepit. Well, I mean to say it gets called Greasepit ’cause that’s its name, Greasepit, Nevada. What I mean to say is I should mention how it got the name Greasepit. See, there was this crossroads. Well, I say crossroads, I mean it was more like a crosspaths. It was just this little spot in the middle of a vast expanse of gravel and rocks and boulders and hills and, well, you get the picture – look around. What do you see? Yeah, gravel and rocks and boulders and hills and not really a whole lot else, right? Well, like I say, there was this crosspaths out in the middle of nowhere, just the place where the railroad crossed the highway, and not much else. Well, I mean to say it was the place where the railroad, if it had gotten built, would’ve crossed the highway, if the highway’d gotten built. I mean to say, it was the place where the trail made by the surveyor team for the railroad, when they went through, making plans for the railroad, crossed the trail made where the team from the highway people come through making all their big plans, and I mean to say if anything had ever come of the plans, there would be a town here now, ’cause towns just naturally grow up where there’s a crossroads. Well, it would’ve been a crossroads if they’d both gotten built, and then there’d be a town here. I guess just the railroad could’ve gotten built, and not the highway, or the highway could’ve gotten built, but not the railroad, and there wouldn’t be a town here, because nobody in their right mind builds a town where there’s no crossroads, you know what I mean? What?   Really?   Oh, really? Excuse me, I’m trying to tell a story here. Oh, yeah? Well, you’re ugly and your mama dresses you funny! The reason, as I was just getting to when I was so rudely interrupted, the reason, I say, that there is a town here at all when there is no crossroads is tied up in the story of the name of the town, which is Greasepit, which is the story I started out to tell, if you recall. Well, I mean to say, it’s not the story I started out to tell, that’s the story of how Sammy stole the books from the school library, but on the way there I got caught up by this other story, the story of how Greasepit came to get the name Greasepit, which is also the story, if you’ll just be patient, sir, of how the town came to be located where there is no crossroads.
     Well, there is a crossroads here now, but the town was here first, and the reason there is a crossroads here is ’cause there was a town here, and people needed a way to get here, so they just naturally made some roads. Kind of the backwards away around to it, but it worked. I mean to say, there is a town here now, and there is a crossroads here now, and I guess in the long run, so to speak, in the big picture, it doesn’t really matter, as such and per se, so to speak, which came first, the chicken or the egg, or in this case the town or the crossroads. It works. I mean to say there’s a town here and people can get here and that’s what matters. Ok, so the story of how the town got the name Greasepit:
     See, there was this manufacturer’s representative, as he liked to call himself, or traveling salesman as other folks would’ve referred to him. Well, peddler is what he was, he had this stuff called somebody or other’s magic elixir or some such, well, I mean to say it wasn’t called somebody or other’s; it was called Smith’s or Jones’s or Abernathy’s or some such, but I don’t rightly know what, and it wasn’t called a magic elixir, but that’s pretty much the claim that got made about it. Ok, snake oil, is what it was, and he was a snake oil salesman, and he had this cart and this mule. Well I say this cart and this mule, I mean to say he had a cart and a mule, not that I’ve got his cart and his mule right here where I can point at them and say this cart and this mule, that was just a figure of speech, is all that was. I mean to say he had a cart and a mule, and he was a wandering snake oil salesman.
     And the way he worked, see, was he would set up his cart, and it had opening sides on it, and he would open up the opening sides, which were made to open up and display his snake oil, or Abernathy’s Patent Tonic or whatever it was called, in shelves on the inside, and he would get up on top and he would commence to shout about his snake oil. Well I say he’d shout about his snake oil, I mean to say he’d shout out whatever it was that he called it, Smith’s Special Stomach Medicine, or whatever it was. I don’t think people would’ve come flocking to see him, standing up there in his top hat and frock coat, if he was shouting “Snake oil!! Snake oil for sale!! Get your snake oil right here, step right up folks!! Snake oil!!” Stands to reason doesn’t it? No, he’d get up there in his top hat and frock coat and shout about Jones’s Powerful Special, or whatever it was called.
     Well, I say top hat and frock coat, I don’t rightly know what he wore. I was never there, but it was a long time ago, and there were traveling snake oil salesmen in the world and it just stands to reason he wore a frock coat and a top hat. I don’t rightly know, as such and per se, so to speak. Anyway, I do know that he stopped at what he thought was a crossroads, only it was just a crosspaths. Well, not even a crosspaths then, just a trail where the railroad surveyors had gone through, because the highway crew hadn’t come through yet, because there were no highways, because there were no cars yet, and why would they have built a highway if there were no cars? Stands to reas– Sir! There are ladies present! Will you kindly keep a civil tongue in your head?! Tsk, tsk, tsk!
     Moving on, there’s this crossroads, or a place, at any rate, where there ought to be a crossroads, or there would be a crossroads, if there were any reason for a road to come through here going one way and another to come through going another way, and if they were to cross here, then there’d be a crossroads, and there’s this traveling snake oil salesman, and he’s standing up on top of his cart behind his mule in his top hat and his frock coat, calling out the virtues of his particular snake oil as opposed to anybody else’s snake oil. Well, that’s the picture we’re going to work with anyway.
     So there he is up there bellowing away, and his mule up and dies on him. Well, I say it dies on him, I don’t meant to say it dies on him so to speak and per se, that’s just a figure of speech, is all that is. I mean to say it dies, not on him, but in the middle of the road. Well, in the middle of where the road would be if there was a road, which there wasn’t. So now his mule is dead, and he’s up there calling out the virtues of his snake oil trying to get people to come and buy some, but there’s no one around his cart ’cause there is no one. I mean to say there is no one within ten miles of his cart, and they can’t hear him. The ones that are there, I mean to say, but aren’t within ten miles. So he figures all his snake oil’s gonna go bad on him. Well, I say on him, I don’t mean it would go bad on him, ’cause he didn’t have it on him, he had it in the cart, but it was going to go bad in the cart, and he couldn’t get anybody to come and buy it, ’cause there wasn’t anybody, so he up and dumps it out in the road, or where the road would be, if there was one, which there wasn’t, and he makes this big grease pit, and then he walks away into the dessert. Probably died out there, I don’t rightly know, as I wasn’t there, but he walked off into the sunset and never came back.
     Well, then this other manufacturer’s representative, or traveling salesman, so to speak, well, peddler, is what he was, he sold pots and pans and such, and I imagine he sold all kinds of other stuff too, I don’t rightly kno– yes, sir, that’s right: I wasn’t there! Will you kindly SHUT UP!! Thank you. As I was saying, there was this other guy, and he came up from one direction in his cart with all his pots and pans and whatever else he might have that he sold out of his cart, and there was this other guy yet, and he was a traveling preacher man, and he came up from the other way, and they couldn’t get around the cart with the dead mule, and so they just sort of stopped there, and the first guy sold pots and pans to the other guy, and the other guy baptized the first guy, and they just sort of made a town, ’cause people came from all directions and couldn’t get past ’em, and that town got called Greasepit, Nevada, see, on account of the big grease pit where the guy dumped out his snake oil and went away. Well, not where he went away, there wasn’t any grease pit where he went away, just where he dumped out his snake oil, but then he did go away after that, is why I said that. Well, I mean to say, there could’ve been a grease pit where he went away, or where he went to, anyway, I don’t rightly know, ’cause I don’t know where he went, but there wasn’t any grease pit the last place we know he was, or where we can surmise he was, as he went away.
     Anyway, that’s why the town got called Greasepit, Nevada, is because of the snake oil and the fact that it’s in the state of Nevada. And don’t go looking on maps for Greasepit, either, ’cause it’s too small. Not the map, the town, although the map’s too small to have the town of Greasepit on it, too, for all of the matter of that.
     So now, here we are in the town of Greasepit, Nevada, and we know why it got called that. Well, I mean to say, it gets called that ’cause that’s its name, but we know why that’s its name. Well, I mean to say, I always did know why that was its name, but now you do, too, if you paid attention, and if you’re not paying attention, just go away. All right, then good riddance, I say, good riddance to bad rubbish. Where were we?
     Oh, yes, the history books, I guess the time has come to talk about the history books. Well, I mean to say, I already did talk about the history books a little, but it’s time to get back to them, now, and to tell the story of how and why Sammy stole them. Well, I say Sammy, I mean to say Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, but everybody called him Sammy, on account of all the reasons we went over above and beforehand.
     See, there was this lady, well, I say lady, I should say woman, on account of I don’t know how lady-like she might’ve been. Well, I mean to say, she could’ve been a lady, per se and as such, for all I know, but I don’t know, ’swhat I mean to say, so I should say woman. So there was this woman, and her name was Mrs Thoroughgoode, and I surely do thank all that’s good and right about the universe that her daughter Matilda Ezmerelda Thoroughgoode never fell in love with Sammy, or Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, as his name rightly was, ’cause I shudder to think what they might’ve named their kids. Anyway, there was this woman, Mrs Thoroughgoode, and she was the librarian for the Greasepit School District.
     Well, Greasepit School District is what they call themselves, but it seems kind of stuck-up and egotistical if you ask some folks, not naming any names or anything, but some folks, and by that I mean one of the bunch of us right here, and I don’t mean any of you, might think it’s stuck up and egotistical to call yourself a School District when there’s only that one building right over there next to the gas station. No, not that one, that one’s a porta-poopy. I mean the one on the other side, the big one. Well, I say big, I mean to say it’s bigger than the porta-poopy. Sort of. Anyway, that’s the Greasepit School District, right there, is what that is, and Mrs Thoroughgoode was the librarian. I don’t mean to say her first name was Mrs, but I don’t know what it was, so I’ll just call her Mrs, is why I said that. Well, her name could’ve been Mrs, for all I know, but it could’ve been Alice or Betty or Carol or something, too. Stands to reason, ’swhat I mean to say. Well, I don’t think her name was Something. Something Thoroughgoode wouldn’t be a very lady-like name would it? That was just a figure of speech, is all that was.
     Anyway, she ordered some history books from this big history book place in New York City, well, this big book place, but we already covered that. When they got here, they came on a truck. Well, I mean to say, there weren’t that many of them, there wasn’t a whole truck-load of ’em, but the ones there were came on a truck, is why I said that. I mean they didn’t come by airplane or boat or train. Well, train’d be mighty difficult to come here by, on account of the railroad never did get built, and airplane or boat’d be pretty difficult, too, ’cause there’s no airport or canal, either. Well, I mean to say, it’d be pretty difficult to get here by airplane ’cause there’s no airport, and it’d be difficult by boat ’cause there’s no canal. There being no airport wouldn’t make it hard to get here by boat, and no canal wouldn’t make it hard by airplane, but there isn’t either one here. Airport or canal, I mean to say, not airplane or boat. Well, there’s no airplane or boat here, either. Anyway, the books came by truck, the history books that Mrs Thoroughgoode ordered for the school library from this big history book place that might not be a history book place, ’cause they might make all kinds of other books, but I don’t rightly know.
     When the truck got here, the truck man stopped at the gas station right there, on account of he didn’t really know where he was, or if he’d gotten here yet. Well, I mean to say, he knew he’d gotten here, but he didn’t know where here was. Well, I assume he knew he’d gotten somewhere, but he did stop to ask where he was, so it stands to reason he didn’t know where it was that he’d gotten, just that he’d gotten somewhere that might or might not be the right place, so he stopped at the gas station to ask where he was, and that’s when total disaster struck.
     Well, I say disaster, I mean Sammy, or Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, as his name actually was. While the truck was stopped, so the truck man could ask where he was – well, he knew where he was, he was standing right there in front of the station, but he didn’t know where the station might be, ’swhat I mean to say, didn’t know what the place might be called, and he was hoping it was called Greasepit, Nevada, ’cause he wanted to be done with it and get to the next place, so he stopped to ask, and while he was asking, his truck was just standing there in the station lot waiting for him. Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? It wasn’t any kind of robot truck that could go off on its own, or there wouldn’t have been a truck man to stop and ask directions, and the truck would have had to stop and ask its own directions, wouldn’t it?
     So it’s just standing there. Well, I say it’s standing there, I mean to say it was standing there, not that it is standing there now. If it was standing there now, we could all just go over there and watch Sammy take the books out of the back of the truck, and I wouldn’t have to tell this story, now would I? ’Cause that’s what he did, is he took the books out of the back of the truck, on account of he didn’t like history. Well, I say he didn’t like history, I mean to say he just plain didn’t like school. He plumb hated school, is the fact of the matter of it. Didn’t think there was anything about school that was worth his time, except he would’ve liked to dip Matilda Ezmerelda Thoroughgoode’s pigtails in the inkwells, if there’d been any inkwells, and if Matilda Ezmerelda Thoroughgoode had worn her hair in pigtails. Matty, she got called, Matilda Ezmerelda Thoroughgoode, that is, she got called Matty, and I think Sammy, or Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, as his name was, thought she was pretty cute. I think he would’ve like to dip her pigtails in ink, not ’cause there was any ink for him to dip ’em in, but because that’s what I did way back when I– I mean, uh, um, er, I just think. . . harumph! Moving right along.
     So anyway, Sammy got up there in the back of the truck, or Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster, that is to say, he got up there in the back of the truck and he stole those history books from that big place back in New York City, see? And that’s the story of Samuel Charles Noah Dickens Webster and how he stole the new history books, both of ’em, and put ’em down the privy in back of the schoolhouse. He would’ve put ’em down the porta-poopy there by the station, but it wasn’t there then, so he took ’em over to the schoolhouse, and he put ’em down the privy in back, and that there’s both the long and the short of it, so to speak and per se, for all of the matter of that.



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Persephone’s Wine – one of the short stories posted at my website

Persephone’s Wine
(c) 2008 Levi Montgomery

Persephone. That’s that Roman dude who had to grunt and groan and struggle to roll the Earth to the top of a big hill every night, and then watch it roll down again all day. Then he had to start over. He’s pretty sure, anyway. But he doesn’t say anything, looking across the long table, watching her slide her water glass in tiny circles, eyes on her task. She’s wearing a tiny smile like she knows a secret, a really amusing secret, a secret she won’t tell anyone.

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